There were no rules, by her account, and little training. But the mission was clear. Spec. Sabrina Harman, a military police officer charged with abusing detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, said she was assigned to break down prisoners for interrogation.
"They would bring in one to several prisoners at a time already hooded and cuffed," Harman said by e-mail this week from Baghdad. "The job of the MP was to keep them awake, make it hell so they would talk."
Harman, one of seven military police reservists charged in the abuse of detainees at the prison, is the second of those soldiers to speak publicly about her time at Abu Ghraib, and her comments echo findings of the Army's investigation into prisoner abuse there. That probe documented the maltreatment of detainees, and found the prison was chaotically run, that there were no apparent rules governing interrogations, and that Harman's military police unit was ill-trained for the job it was asked to perform.
Harman, 26, a Army reservist from Alexandria, Va., said members of her military police unit took direction from Army military intelligence officers, CIA operatives and from civilian contractors who conducted interrogations. She did not discuss abusive treatment of prisoners or clarify who specifically ordered such treatment, and referred questions about the charges to her lawyer, who declined to comment.
Her face is now famous as belonging to one of two soldiers posing in the widely published photograph of naked Iraqi detainees stacked in a pyramid. The picture is one of several that have inflamed the Arab world and brought condemnation from President Bush and other U.S. political and military leaders.
Harman is accused by the Army of taking photographs of that pyramid and photographing and videotaping detainees who were ordered to strip and masturbate in front of other prisoners and soldiers, according to a charge sheet obtained by The Washington Post.
She is also charged with photographing a corpse and then posing for a picture with it; striking several prisoners by jumping on them as they lay in a pile; writing "rapeist" on a prisoner's leg; and attaching wires to a prisoner's hands while he stood on a box with his head covered. She told him he would be electrocuted if he fell off the box, the documents said.
In her e-mails, Harman said detainees would be handed over to her military police unit by Army intelligence officers, CIA operatives or by the contractors. The Army investigation into Abu Ghraib said the U.S. government used employees of private companies as interrogators and interpreters along with intelligence officers. Two of the civilian contractors are under investigation in connection with the abuses.
Prisoners were stripped, searched and then "made to stand or kneel for hours," Harman said. Sometimes they were forced to stand on boxes or hold boxes or to exercise to tire them out, she said.
"The person who brought them in would set the standards on whether or not to 'be nice,' " she said. "If the prisoner was cooperating then the prisoner was able to keep his jump suit, mattress and was allowed cigarettes on request or even hot food. But if the prisoner didn't give what they wanted, it was all taken away until (military intelligence) decided. Sleep, food, clothes, mattresses, cigarettes were all privileges and were granted with information received."
She said the prison had no standard operating procedures and on Tier 1A, where suspected insurgents were held, Army intelligence officers "made the rules as they went."
Harman joined the Army as a reservist in 2001, after the Sept. 11 attacks. She was assigned to the 372nd, based in Cresaptown, Md. The company was called up for duty in February last year and deployed to Fort Lee, Va., for three months before heading to Iraq.
Harman, an assistant manager at a Virginia Papa John's Pizza before being sent to Iraq, said the company received additional training at Fort Lee, but it was for "combat support not I/R," the military term for internment and resettlement. She said she was never schooled in the Geneva conventions' requirements on prisoner treatment.
In the Army report on conditions at prison, Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba said that "soldiers were poorly prepared and untrained to conduct I/R operations prior to deployment, at the mobilization site, upon arrival in theater and throughout their mission." He found that standard operating procedures were not fully developed or "widely ignored."
The Army has launched several investigations into the abuse and has notified seven officers and sergeants that they will receive letters of reprimand or admonishment that could end their careers.
Harman is charged with conspiracy, dereliction of duty, cruelty and maltreatment, making a false statement and assault. She faces an Article 32 hearing in June, the military equivalent of a preliminary hearing to determine whether there is enough evidence to convene a court-martial.
In his investigation into abuse at the prison, Taguba used a portion of Harman's sworn statement to conclude that prisoners had been abused. Harman "stated ... regarding the incident where a detainee was placed on box with wires attached to his fingers, toes and penis, 'that her job was to keep detainees awake.' "
The other soldiers charged with abuse are Staff Sgt. Ivan Frederick II, Sgt. Javal Davis, Cpl. Charles Graner Jr., Spec. Jeremy Sivits, Spec. Megan Ambuhl and Pfc. Lynndie England. England was charged yesterday.
Harman's mother, Robin Harman, said her daughter began to take and collect pictures as evidence of the improper conditions at Abu Ghraib shortly after she arrived there in October.
Sabrina Harman brought the photographs home to Virginia in mid-November during a two-week leave. An Army investigator showed up on Jan. 16 and took a CD of photos and Harman's laptop, her roommate said.
In February, the Army moved Harman to Camp Victory, a massive base of trailers and tents off the heavily mortared road that leads from Baghdad to the international airport. Her weapon was confiscated, but she is not in confinement. She spends her days sweeping streets and planting flowers, her family said.
"She has this ... attitude that she is going to save the world," said Robin Harman, who lives in Northern Virginia. "She got over there and got an eye-opener. You don't put unqualified kids in that situation."
Copyright 2004 The Seattle Times Company